Wednesday's Christmas (Tree) Story was a big hit and elicited a number of interesting comments from those who remember those early days, but none more interesting than the submission from Troy Cagle, whose father, Gary, was one of the sport's early pioneers.
The senior Cagle, who passed away in 1994, was a former dry lakes racer and a member of the Grant Piston Rings 200-mph Club who first competed on the quarter-mile at the Santa Ana Drags with Don Hampton. He rose to prominence behind the wheel of Chet Herbert's dragster, reportedly one of the first to be fitted with a 392 Chrysler Hemi and top-mounted blower (trivia note: he also was one of the first drag racers to be sponsored by Torco). Cagle also was one of the sport's first touring drivers in the summer of 1959. Herbert's sister, Doris, owned and published Drag News at the time and helped arrange a swing through the Midwest and East Coast tracks. He later drove for the late, great Mickey Thompson and powered Dean Moon's Mooneyes dragster to the Middle Eliminator victory at the '62 Winternationals.
To say he was "old school' would not be an understatement, so this "staged" photo of Cagle, cane in hand, that appeared in Drag News speaks volumes.
Longtime column reader Howard Hull, who worked at fabled Orange County Int’l Raceway as a teenager during the 1970s, also reminded me that some tracks, like OCIR, tired of having their delicate Trees mowed down by errant race cars, suspended their Tree on a wire strung across the track. "I hated having to climb under the spectator grandstand to find a back up Tree and working bulbs," he groaned. "Everyone would be yelling at me to hurry."
Racecar lovers can’t always afford to build their dream car or don't have the technical ability to do so, and some of them turn their creativity to model building. Anyone with a fair amount of patience can build a pretty decent model right out of the box, but it's the rare cat who can take parts from other kits and build something custom, let alone something that looks like it came from a real model manufacturer, but that's exactly what Tom Hartman did with this amazing recreation of Frank and Linda Mazi's supercharged Opel. (If you don't know why this car is special to me, you haven't been reading DRAGSTER long enough, so go here to read the two-part story on Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian's website. We'll wait for you. Honest.)
Hartman grew up in northeast Ohio, stomping grounds for the Eastlake-based Mazi clan, and saw their cars run many times, and the short-wheelbased, high-powered Opel was one of his favorites. "I really like the doorslammers and Frank's cars where always fast and nice-looking cars," he wrote. "I liked the Opel the best and thought I would give it a shot. I am not a great builder, so the stripes got a little tough, but I am happy with the result." Me, too.
Comparing the photos, you can see he nailed everything from the paint scheme to the correct injector scoop and weedburner headers that drove track operators nuts by blowing into their photocells.
Dan "the Sign Man" DeLaney, a good friend of the Mazis and a popular choice among East Coast doorslammers, having added his paintwork to the cars of the likes of Wally Clark, Jim Boburka, and Tom Sheehan, and as far west as the DeFrank family Super Stockers, passed along the pics after coming across the car at the 2007 Toledo NNL model show. Delaney, who's been in the business for 30 years, did not paint the Mazi cars – Frank did all the work himself and Glen Weisgerber the lettering – but DeLaney was "called in a couple times to fix crashed front ends, doors, and touch-up other stuff, such as the trailer, t-shirts, and signs. I would have loved to have had the chance, but I don't know if I could have done their cars justice back then; nobody better than Glen, and he's still crankin' stuff out."
Stuff in my office: Hey race fans, it's a new, semi-regular feature of this column that might be interesting (or boring) to many of you that I'll carry on through the winter. Over 25 years, I've collected some pretty cool trinkets that adorn my office and serve as signposts of my 25-year journey. I'll share some and offer a bit of a history lesson about what they represent.
This is one of my most prized possessions -- a crystal toasting glass from Don Prudhomme's retirement party, which was held Oct. 26, 1994, at the Playboy Mansion here in Southern California. (I do not, of course, keep it on a red satin pedestal. I asked Jerry Foss to shoot it and he got all artsy for y'all; thanks, JF.) Being invited to party at the Playboy Mansion probably ranks in the Top 10 of any guy's fantasies and, even though most of the bunnies on the grounds that day were of the four-legged variety, it was still a thrill to explore the grounds, from the infamous "grotto" swimming pool to the wall-to-wall cushioned "game room" (though we were not allowed inside the actual mansion, where Hugh Hefner was secluded yet made a brief appearance –- in trademark silk pajamas -- to congratulate "the Snake" and meet Wally and Barbara Parks).
The party came near the end of Prudhomme's successful "Final Strike" season. He closed out his brilliant driving career in style, winning in Houston, Brainerd, and Dallas, as well as at the Winston Invitational, and finished in second place, only eight rounds behind champ Scott Kalitta. He told us at the time, "It's been great. This is the way I had always dreamed I could go out. It's been a wonderful career."
Prudhomme won his 49th and final event, in Dallas, on Oct. 23, just three days before the mansion bash. The venue was the brainchild of Susie Arnold, Kenny Bernstein's long-running publicist who was NHRA's Director of Marketing at the time, and former NHRA Director of Communications Denny Darnell.
"Denny and I actually thought of it first, just thinking about where the coolest place would be to have a retirement bash that most people would like to visit but couldn't without a special invitation," she said. "Denny and I took Lynn Prudhomme along for a meeting. Lynn thought it was a great idea, but I think Don was a little hesitant, and then we had to convince Hugh Hefner's staff that we were a respectable group that would be respectful of Hefner's property. [NHRA] made a donation to one of Hefner's favorite charities to assist in the opportunity to use the property. Then we had to convince Barbara and Wally that it would be an opportunity worthy of pursuing. Denny and I met with them and they bought into the proposition by the end of the meal. Turns out there were fans of our sport and of Don's within the Playboy operation, but we didn't find that out until well into the evening's festivities. Hugh Hefner came down and personally met with Don and Lynn, Wally and Barbara, among others. Shav Glick attended the retirement party and shortly before his death, still proclaimed it as one of the highlights of his many years of sports coverage."
The list of attendees was a Who's Who of NHRA and then-sponsor Winston, plus Prudhomme's other motorsports pals, like Rusty Wallace. The late, great Leslie Lovett, Teresa Long, Jerry Foss, and myself represented National DRAGSTER, and, like Shav said, it's one of my treasured memories.